Kol Nidre's Spell

“All vows and oaths we take, all promises and obligations we make between this Yom Kippur and the next are null and void.” — Kol Nidre 

Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, invites us to a heightened sense of conscience. Prayers and teachings encourage us to reflect on dropped commitments of the past year, and to be aware of the damaging consequences of our lapses. Yet Yom Kippur observance begins with the Kol Nidre declaration, “Let my obligations lapse!”

The spirit of Kol Nidre seems to run counter to the spirit of Yom Kippur.

Why, then, is Kol Nidre so well-loved? Why is it essential to the Yom Kippur experience of so many Jews? Why have 1,000 years of rabbinic attempts to remove it from the liturgy failed?

At Or Shalom, we placed this question at the centre of our pre-High Holy Day study, during our Selichot service.

What makes Kol Nidrei so powerful?

Gloria Levi spoke of the fragility of the ego. Each year, when we make our New Year’s Resolutions, we expect the world to conform to our plans. But so much lies outside our control. With the best of intentions, we will make vows, promises, and commitments — and circumstances will prevent their fulfillment. Kol Nidre reminds us of the limitations of our ego. Even as we vow, we acknowledge the fragility of our vows.

John Fuerst spoke of paradox. Each year at Yom Kippur he finds himself deeply engaged by the oddity of Kol Nidre’s content. Each year, he asks himself the intellectual question, “How shall I understand the Kol Nidre?” And, each year, he asks himself the moral question, “Where should I affirm my responsibility, and where should I let go?”

Zelik Segal spoke of mystery. Kol Nidre night draws even the most estranged Jews to synagogue. Some come because they love the drama or music of the ritual. But many have no clear idea of why they have come; in their minds, they don’t believe in God or religion at all. They bring their questions, conflicted emotions, and unarticulated desires. Their collective presence fills our hearts and lends Kol Nidre its moving power.

Kol Nidre’s rhythmic words recall words inscribed on ancient Mesopotamian magical bowls used to banish demons. Which of Kol Nidre’s powers will cast its spell over you this year?

Image: jhom.com

Reference source: All These Vowsedited by Lawrence Hoffman (Jewish Lights, 2011)

  1. This is such a lovely concept, the ability to release that which no longer serves you and to reflect and adjust the commitments which is better reflective of your current circumstances. I think we often cling to the things we’ve left undone, harbouring guilt for not following through instead of moving forward and finding a new path and celebrating the journey we’ve walked so far. I am new to this aspect of Judaic philosophy in that I have only really been aware of the parts that have intersected with Christian faith, but find that there is a depth to it that I am truly enjoying and have a desire to explore further; I am grateful for your teachings! 🙂

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